CPJ expresses alarm after independent journalist detained in Pakistan

Pakistan authorities should ‘immediately release Toor, and cease harassing him for his journalistic work’, says CPJ

Arpan Rai
Tuesday 27 February 2024 11:08 GMT
Imran Khan arrested outside Islamabad High Court

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned the arrest of an independent Pakistani journalist accused of “explicit and malicious” campaign against Supreme Court judges.

Asad Ali Toor, who has a YouTube channel named ‘Asad Toor Uncensored’ with over 164,000 subscribers, was arrested in Islamabad on Monday by the country’s Federal Investigation Agency, his lawyer and human rights advocate Imaan Mazari-Hazir said.

He was previously summoned for questioning on Friday and was in the FIA office till evening after his extensive reporting critical of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the country’s military establishment on YouTube and X, formerly known as Twitter. On Monday, he was arrested at the agency’s cybercrime wing.

The CPJ asked Pakistan authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release Toor, and to cease harassing him for his journalistic work”.

He was presented at an Islamabad district and session court where the FIA sought his 10 day remand but was given five days for questioning in the case regarding what the authorities say is about an online campaign against the judiciary.

After the Supreme Court revoked the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s rights to its trademark “bat” symbol, the move sparked heavy criticism of the country’s judiciary. In January, Pakistan’s caretaker regime ordered a five-member joint investigation team (JIT) to “ascertain facts behind a malicious social media campaign”.

Toor’s YouTube channel extensively reported on Pakistan elections, especially on alleged rigging and proceedings against Mr Khan who is behind the bars.

The CPJ noted that the FIA refused Toor’s lawyer from accompanying him for questioning, locked its entrance doors, and turned off the lights of the building once he was inside.

Shortly after, an FIA official informed the journalist’s lawyer of his arrest, handing her a handwritten note from Toor asking for his 78-year-old mother to be taken to a relative’s home.

Toor was also summoned on Friday, in what his lawyer Ms Mazari-Hazir said, was not delivered directly to him but at his previous residential address.

“On Thursday, Asad called me, informing me that a summon notice by the FIA was circulating online but he did not receive the notice directly. The notice was not duly served. But to demonstrate good faith, he went and appeared before the FIA at 10.50am,” she told The Independent.

She said the FIA officials started a “formal enquiry where no question was asked about the commission of any offence”.

“All they asked him was whether what he did constituted journalism, whether sarcasm constituted journalism, why he was critical of the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), and  why he used derogatory remarks against the top officer. None of these things, even if he had done them, don’t constitute an offence under Pakistani law,” his lawyer said.

Toor was in detention for eight hours on Friday and was asked to reappear on Monday again.

The FIA officials have asked Toor to reveal his journalistic sources, Ms Mazari-Hazir told The Independent, adding that he refused to do that. “Today also we see that they are pushing the court to go after Asad’s devices because they are going after his sources,” she said.

“Asad has been made a target through abuse of FIA’s course of powers and it is my opinion that the purpose is to deter Asad’s critical reporting on matters of public importance,” the lawyer said.

The CPJ’s programme director Carlos Martinez de la Serna said that the committee is “appalled by the arrest which is in an apparent violation of an order by the Islamabad High Court”.

“Pakistani authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Toor and ensure that journalists do not face retaliation for their critical reporting on institutions, including the judiciary,” the CPJ said.

This is not the first time Toor has faced backlash for his journalistic work. In 2021, he was assaulted in his house by three unidentified men who attacked him with a pistol and asked him to chant “Long Live the ISI, Long Live the Pakistani Army”.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was “seriously concerned by the news” of Toor’s arrest.

“He should be released immediately and any curbs on freedom of expression removed promptly,” the HRCP said.

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